Are Gay Men Really Rich? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: Ludovic Bertron)

(Photo: Ludovic Bertron)

Our latest episode is called “Are Gay Men Really Rich?”  (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) It began with a question from Freakonomics Radio listener Danny Rosa:

ROSA: I’m wondering why gay men are so affluent and successful. If you walk around neighborhoods like West Hollywood in Los Angeles, the Castro in San Francisco, and Boystown in Chicago, they are all very well-kept, expensive, and highly sought-after. So, I’m thinking, what is it about gay men and the gay culture that makes them so wealthy?

In the episode, Stephen Dubner explores the “gay men are rich” stereotype and learns what the data can — and, importantly, cannot — tell us. Along the way, you’ll hear from Lee Badgett at the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank dedicated to sexual-orientation research; Dan Black, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago; and Keith Ericson, a professor of public policy at Boston University. You’ll also hear from Steve Levitt on why gays choose to live where they do (he talked about this in an earlier episode). In the end, you’ll learn a lot about income and sexual orientation, but you’ll also learn that nearly everything you learn is, on some level, suspect. As Badgett reminds us: 

BADGETT: The most important thing to know is that it is actually pretty hard to get good data on lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.

This episode drew on the following papers and studies, which you might wish to look through if the topic is of interest. Thanks to Gary Gates at the Williams Institute for helping us sort through the data:

Audio Transcript

[MUSIC: Know One, “Near Hit” (from The Ballad of Know One & DamNathan)]


Stephen J. DUBNER: Hey everybody. A Freakonomics Radio listener named Danny Rosa recently got in touch with us. He’s 22, recently graduated from the University of Chicago. He works as a youth advocate at the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center. Danny himself is gay, and he has a question for us:


Danny ROSA: Hey, Freakonomics. I’m Danny Rosa and I’m wondering why gay men are so affluent and successful. If you walk down neighborhoods like West Hollywood in Los Angeles, the Castro in San Francisco, and Boystown in Chicago, they are all very well-kept, expensive, and highly sought after. So, I’m thinking, what is it about gay men and the gay culture that makes them so wealthy?


DUBNER: What is it about gay men that makes them so wealthy? It is true that the gay neighborhoods that Danny mentions in L.A. and San Francisco and Chicago – as well as similar areas in New York and Washington and elsewhere – are very nice neighborhoods. And if you watch even a little bit of television these days, you’ll get the same idea...




DUBNER: So, yes, it’s pretty easy to get the impression that being gay is a ticket to affluence. But today, on Freakonomics Radio, we ask this: how real is that rich gay stereotype?




ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.


DUBNER: Okay, so the question we’re trying to answer today seems pretty simple: why are gay men affluent? That, of course, presumes that gay men are more affluent, so we should probably start there.


[MUSIC: David M Young, “Iridentalism”]


DUBNER: Let’s take a look at U.S. Census data. According to some analyses, median household income for heterosexual couples is about $86,000. For gay male couples, meanwhile, median household income is…$105,600, or nearly 20 percent more. And, for what it’s worth, lesbian couples have lower median income than heterosexual couples, about $84,000. So Danny Rosa seems to be right – gay men do seem to earn more. So the next logical question is … why? Lee Badgett is an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She says it appears that gay men tend to have higher-than-average education levels. Now, there may be a lot of explanations for that. Here’s one you may not have considered:


Lee BADGETT: One possibility is a gay person says, well, I know I’m going to face some stigma and discrimination in the labor market, maybe my best defense against having an income disadvantage is to get a lot of education. So that’s one possibility that it’s trying to overcome the effects of discrimination.


DUBNER: Now, as we know, more education usually translates into more earnings. Here’s Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He’s an economist at the University of Chicago:


Steven D. LEVITT: The best estimates that economists have are that each extra year of education that you get is worth about maybe an 8 percent increment to your earnings each year for the rest of your life.


DUBNER: So someone with a college diploma will, on average, outearn someone with only a high-school diploma by about a million dollars over their lifetime. If, therefore, gay men get more education, that would go a long way toward explaining why they earn more. Plus which, men generally earn more than women, so having two working men in a household should also lead to higher incomes. So that’s the earning. What about the spending? Are there big differences between how a gay couple and a straight couple spend their money?


[MUSIC: Carson Henley, “Fire” (from 100 Hours)]


DUBNER: Well, the most obvious difference, and probably also the biggest, goes by a famous acronym DINK. That’s Dual Income, No Kids: Dan Black is an economist who teaches public policy at the University of Chicago. He says there’s a rank order as to what kind of couples are more likely to have kids:


Dan BLACK: The hierarchy sort of goes heterosexual couples, lesbian couples, followed by gay male couples.


DUBNER: Okay, here are the numbers. In the U.S., 43.5 percent of straight couples are raising kids under age 18. Among lesbian households, that number is 22 percent. And only 10 percent of gay male couples are raising a child. So a straight couple is more than four times as likely as a gay male couple to be raising a kid. And when you’re not raising a kid, as Dan Black points out …


BLACK: You have more disposable income because you’re not making the expenditures associated with having children.


DUBNER: And what kind of expenditures are we talking about for having children? Well, one government estimate says that American parents spend an average of nearly $175,000 per kid from birth to age 18. So a couple without kids – gay or otherwise – has that money to spend in some other way. How is it spent? Well, here is some data. The average same-sex household, we’re told, makes 16 percent more shopping trips than the average straight U.S. household. Also, gay households are said to spend 50 percent more on pet care products – so if you’re a dog, and you want to be pampered, having gay parents seems like a good idea. If you don’t have kids, you don’t have tuition bills and orthodontist bills, kick-boxing lessons to pay for. You don’t have to stay home with the kids when they’re young. Here’s another financial advantage of childlessness:  


BLACK: So if you, you know, want to live in San Francisco it’s nice if you don’t have to buy a five-bedroom house.


DUBNER: That’s Dan Black again. He co-wrote a paper called “Why Do Gay Men Live In San Francisco?” So why do they? One reason is that they can afford to! But also, Black’s research shows that neighborhood amenities are a particular draw for gay men. Here’s Steve Levitt again.


LEVITT: So when economists talk about location they use the word amenities to mean the kinds of things that people are willing to pay for. So access to theater, or to nature, or to a good bar scene or things like that.


[MUSIC: The Mackrosoft, “Life It Too Short” (from S.E.M.E.)]


DUBNER: So all the evidence seems to confirm the hunch that Danny Rosa, our Freakonomics Radio listener, got in touch to ask us about. That gay men are more affluent, probably because they’re more highly educated, and because they’re much less likely to have kids, which means they have the money to live in really nice neighborhoods. BUT, as you know, this show is all about using data to look at the world. And some data is much better than others. So what if the data that we’ve been looking at here … just isn’t very good?


BADGETT: The most important thing to know is that it is actually pretty hard to get good data on lesbian, gay and bisexual people.


DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio, why everything that we just told you is probably kind of wrong.




ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.


[MUSIC: Euforquestra, “Obatala” (from Explorations in Afrobeat)]


DUBNER: On today’s show we’re talking about the stereotype of the high-income gay American male, and how true that stereotype may be. So far, we’ve given you some pretty convincing-sounding data. But it’s probably not as convincing as it sounds. Keith Ericson is a professor of public policy and law at Boston University. There is a problem, he says, with just about everything we’ve told you so far:


ERICSON: Data about LGBT individuals that we have is really data about individuals

who choose to disclose their sexual orientation. And that’s not necessarily a representative sample of gay people for instance.


DUBNER: Okay. So one problem is that not everyone who’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is going to say so when a stranger with a Census form knocks on their door. But even before that, you have to back up a step:


ERICSON: Well, the first problem that we’d have is that the census doesn’t ask directly about sexual orientation.


DUBNER: Ok, so if the Census doesn’t ask directly about sexual orientation, how do we know what we’ve been telling you about – that, for instance, gay couples earn about 20 percent more than straight couples?


ERICSON: What people have been able to do at the census is look at people who report being in a same-sex-partnered household. And obviously that’s a sub-sample of gay people as a whole. It’s a sub-sample because not all gay people are partnered, and it’s also a sub-sample because not all partnered gay people would want to disclose that to the census.


[MUSIC: Soulglue, “Steve McQueen” (from Arboretum)]


DUBNER: So you see the problem, yes? You probably also see why, in the earlier part of our program, we told you about the income of gay couples but not individuals. But as Keith Ericson points out, even that data isn’t necessarily a good representation of the gay-couple population. And why is that? Well, maybe a high-earning gay couple is more likely to divulge their sexuality to a census-taker than a low-earning couple. So in a way, the more we learn here, the less we seem to know. Maybe we should go back even further back, to something really basic – like: what share of the U.S. population is LGBT? A Gallup poll tells us the number is about 3.4 percent.But again, keep in mind, that’s survey data. Keith Ericson says the LGBT headcount is “substantially underestimated.”


ERICSON: So we find that even when we ask people anonymously, if we ask them directly, they aren’t necessarily willing to reveal that they are LGBT. But when we ask them in this private, veiled way so that we don’t know anything about a particular person, then our reported LGBT identity goes up substantially, about a 65 percent increase in our data.


[MUSIC: Druu, “Ride”]


DUBNER: So if a group of people is under-counted – and many of them may be unwilling to disclose information about themselves, it makes it pretty hard to get reliable data about their income, doesn’t it? So how can we find out if the affluent-gay stereotype is really true? Here’s economist Lee Badgett again.


BADGETT: We have a few studies from the Williams Institute that look at income…


DUBNER: The Williams Institute is a think tank at UCLA that specializes in issues around sexual orientation. Badgett is one of their scholars. The studies she’s talking about tell a completely different story about gay income.


BADGETT: Gay and lesbian people tend to have higher-than-average education levels, so you would expect them to have higher-than-average incomes. But when you compare gay and straight people with the same education level, actually the gay people earn less.


DUBNER: Did you hear that? Badgett says that, while her data may not be so great either, it appears that if you took two observationally equivalent men -- same background, same education, and so on – that the gay man would earn less than the straight man, not more. In fact, earlier this year, Badgett and two co-authors released a Williams Institute study which found that gays and lesbians are more likely to live in poverty than observationally equivalent heterosexuals. Now, you may be a bit suspicious of such a claim made by an institute dedicated to sexual-orientation issues – but, assuming it’s legitimate, the next obvious question would be: why aren’t gays earning more? Dan Black, from the University of Chicago, has a couple ideas:


BLACK: I think there is some good evidence that gay men do take occupations that are, you know, they look more female like, and of course female occupations traditionally pay a little bit lower so that could explain a part of it.


DUBNER: Now, again, keep in mind, an analysis like this relies on self-identified gay men who live with a same-sex partner – but, among that group, a gay man was about 16 times more likely than a straight man to teach preschool or kindergarten. About 5 times more likely to be a librarian or a registered nurse. Not the highest-paying jobs. Dan Black says that if gay men do indeed earn less, there may be another reason:


BLACK: I wouldn’t be shocked to find that a good portion of that was actually due to discrimination.


[MUSIC: The Sound Room, “Dub”]


DUBNER: Now, how does an employer discriminate against someone they think is gay? Here, according to Black and Badgett, is one way it can happen:


BLACK: You send... just send a resume in...


BADGETT: ...and it’s just one little line that’s buried in there on the resume.


BLACK: And you know, down halfway through the resume you list a membership, or not, in a gay or lesbian group.


BADGETT And it employers, you know, who are seeing resumes with and without that line tend to notice it apparently, because in one study that was done by a sociologist recently here in the U.S., Andras Tilcsik, for every, for every eight jobs a straight man applied for, he got invited to an interview. But gay men had to apply for eleven jobs to even get just one interview. So that’s just at the interview stage. And I suspect that that differential treatment between the gay and the straight applicants is likely to be seen in other ways, if we could actually study this further into the employment process.


DUBNER: So how much might discrimination affect what gay men earn? You remember Keith Ericson, from Boston University?


ERICSON: Hi, yes...


DUBNER: Well, as he tells us, there might be more discrimination than we think, because there’s probably more homophobia than we think too …


ERICSON: We find that people are also hesitant to reveal that they don’t support gays and lesbians, that they hide their anti-gay sentiment. So when we ask in a private, veiled way, people are more likely to admit that they would be uncomfortable having a gay manager, or that they think it’s okay to discriminate against gays and lesbians.


DUBNER: A study that Ericson co-authored found that when people could answer questions totally anonymously, they were much more likely to express anti-gay feelings. So of course this would help explain why so many gays and lesbians are unwilling to admit they’re gay or lesbian. It also helps explain why it’s so hard to do something as simple as collect basic income information. Now, this will likely change as society moves on. Same-sex marriage is increasingly being recognized and legalized in this country and elsewhere.  What kind of changes will that bring? Over the past 20 years, it appears that the rate of partnered gay men becoming parents has nearly doubled. What happens if that trend continues? Here’s Dan Black again:


BLACK: Well it could have negative effects on economic outcomes in the sense that in particular I think giving greater access to adoption on the part of gay and lesbian couples might induce them to suffer, if you will, the consequences of having children, and of course achieve the obvious benefits to having children as well.


[MUSIC: Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics, “Coming Home To You” (from It’s About Time)]


DUBNER: As someone who has kids, two of them, I’ll vouch for the benefits. I’ll also vouch for the costs. They are for real. As for the question that started this whole conversation, from Danny Rosa -- he wanted to know “what is it about gay men and the gay culture that makes them so wealthy?” He got this idea from seeing the really nice, expensive gay neighborhoods in big cities. Media stereotypes confirm this idea. But as we’ve learned in today’s program, the data doesn’t necessarily confirm it. In fact, the data pushes back against this stereotype. Now, this wouldn’t be the first stereotype that turned out to not be true. Maybe the best lesson to learn from this is about what’s called confirmation bias. That means, basically, that when you already think something is true, you tend to pay more attention to evidence that confirms that idea. So if you already think that gay men are relatively affluent, and then you see a few really nice neighborhoods that happen to be gay neighborhoods – well, it confirms your view. It’s not that you necessarily block out the evidence that runs contrary; it just doesn't register in the same way. This is just one of many ways in which we humans are, alas, not perfect. But we’re still pretty good. Happy holidays.



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  1. Noah says:

    I live on SSD, and my husband is a NYC public school teacher. Rich? You’ve got to be kidding! What we need to see in the media are images of REAL gay men–the ones who don’t go to the gym, the ones who are not “pretty boys” but instead just average ordinary men trying to get by. Please see my YouTube:

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2
    • NZ says:

      Thumbs up! I couldn’t agree more.

      The gay rights movement would do itself a huge favor by placing a priority on changing the way gay people are depicted in the media. If the rest of America got the impression that gay men watch football, mow their lawns, go to church, and are grossed out by the idea of nude yoga (you know, just like normal people are), it would remove the assumption that gay people are out to change–rather than participate in–the institution of marriage.

      (Of course, the gay rights movement doesn’t exactly have a spotless track record when it comes to acting in the interests of gay people.)

      In the media presently, gay men are usually depicted as flamboyant, prissy, sex-obsessed, and/or cosmopolitan. (Gay publications like Out! magazine tend to fuel this depiction as well.) An occasional statement, but little hard evidence, has been offered up by prominent gay men to disprove the accuracy of this depiction. I like to assume the evidence is there somewhere but that for whatever reason it just hasn’t made its way into the mainstream view. But even if the evidence isn’t there, changing the depiction would still be beneficial, from a tactical standpoint, to the cause of gay integration and acceptance.

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      • James says:

        I don’t know who you think of as “the rest of America”, but as a football detesting agnostic straight male who has pretty much always done his yoga in the nude, I kinda prefer the stereotype of gay men to your stereotype of “normal people” :-)

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2
      • NZ says:


        You don’t fit into the group whose hearts and minds the gay rights movement needs to worry most about winning over. The people who object most strongly to gay marriage tend to also fit my stereotype of “normal people.”

        On the other hand, the stated objectives of the gay rights movement don’t seem to be based on winning hearts and minds anyway…

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      • James says:

        A point, but then I’ve never had any ambition to be normal by that definition. I’d also suggest that, given the growing support for gay marriage, it just possibly might be that normal-by-your-definition people are in fact the outliers.

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      • Phil Persinger says:


        My recollection of the civil rights movement is that consisted of those who specialized in litigation, those who were street activists, those who were black nationalists, those who were Black Panthers and those who were ministers. It was a very wide spectrum and most of the time– with the notable exception of SNCC’s actions in the South– not much attention was paid to winning hearts and minds of the white majority. That strategy had been discarded because it hadn’t yielded results. Civil rights were won in the courts and through bare-knuckles politics; after 50 years, public opinion still hasn’t caught up completely. Same goes for the women’s and LGBT movements.

        The pod-cast transcript makes it clear that we really don’t have socio-economic data of a useful sort on LGBT individuals and couples. It seems to me that the default setting under the circumstances should be that LGBT DINKs are generally no more “wealthy” than straight DINKs, single LGBTs are no more rich than single straights and so on. That Danny Rosa thinks otherwise may have more to do with his being young and optimistic than with his cultural perspicacity.

        This comment thread is interesting because it seems to involve– with a few exceptions– straight people talking about why gay people are so wealthy and otherwise different from the norm. I think James is right (if I understand him) that there is a reflective stereotyping of and by straight folks on what straight folks are about and that self-stereotyping warps their view of what they define as other groups.

        Your idea of stereotyping as data-point analysis useful for social shorthand has an novel spin and I hope that it works for you. But it makes me wonder, in this case, how many LGBTs you really know and how well you know your straight friends and relatives. My personal (and therefore admittedly anecdotal) experience with folks of whatever persuasion is that the data points I could plot wouldn’t yield any fitting curves– the dots are way too schmeared out.

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  2. BigGuy says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 12
    • anonymous says:

      Where is it you GOT these ideas? Third boy is gay??? Gays are poor but better looking so you can’t tell??? Where were these studies done???

      As for “inheriting money from parents and brothers and sisters”, I suppose it happens. But if those brothers and sisters have kids, the grandparents are going to leave their money for those kids’ college fund, not send it to Gay George in San Francisco so he can get botox injections. The brothers and sisters money is also tied up in mortgages and kids, why would they leave money to their gay siblings instead of their own children?

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      • anonymous says:

        BTW, for what it’s worth, my neighbor who has a rich gay relative said the relative got a big inheritance from an elderly sugar daddy, who died after this relative functioned as a sort of caretaker for a few years. There’s that to consider, inheritances and support from rich gay men – who have to leave their money to someone (or something).

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  3. Mike Jones says:

    Question for the gays reading this – “At what age did you discover that you were attracted to the same sex?” I often hear gays say “Oh, I always knew that I liked men (or women)”.

    Does that mean the age of 6? The age of 10? 13? I didn’t know that I like girls until after puberty. Before puberty I looked at women as just friends with cooties.

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    • LS says:

      I’ll bite…

      Can you think of the age when you learned that men and women fell in love and had marriages/partnerships? My guess is that this is such a huge part of the world surrounding children (their families, their communities, television, books, religious stories, etc.) that the moment of “discovery” cannot be traced since it’s ingrained from day one. So someone might say that they “always knew” it to be the case.

      I can’t speak for queer men and women in general, but for myself, I would put the idea that I was interested in other women in the same sort of category. Long before understanding what sex was or what gay rights were or anything like that, I had this understanding that the man-woman partnership I saw everywhere did not feel right to me. Later I was able to articulate these feelings and realize it was homosexuality, but the feelings existed from such a young (and inarticulate) age that there is nothing like an aha! moment to point to. I just knew it in the way that kids know about heterosexuality well before they understand what sex is or begin to desire it.

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  4. claude says:

    I think you missed one point that the question should have suggested.

    The gayborhoods and people who live there have some of their wealth as a result of the increase in property values. Everyone want to live in those neighborhoods, which pushes the price. However, in many cases, when the gays started moving in, they were run down parts of town. Having the wealthy follow them has helped them.

    But..good story.

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  5. Voice of Reason says:

    I’ve always assumed that gay affluence arose as a result of gay people never having to worry about unwanted pregnancies, and only ever having children when they had to fight tooth and nail for them through adoption.

    Even disregarding the disposable wealth having two incomes with no children brings, think about how much worse off people tend to be when they have children out of wedlock as teens compared to their childless counterparts. Even if that accounts for just 20% of the straight population, that’s enough to put a dent in the data.

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  6. jerilyn says:

    Hi Freakanomics, I listen to your podcasts often. I find them interesting. I am a Physician Assistant, an am woefully ignorant about economics. I enjoy looking at issues through the economics world view, which is different from mine.
    As I read the title of the article and started listening, I immediately thought that gay men were NOT richer, and was surprised to find that others thought they were. The way that gay men are portrayed on T.V. is not what I see at my clinic.

    Recent research has shown that gay men suffer from higher rates of suicide, depression, substance abuse and other self destruction behavior than straight men. I kept waiting for the podcast to mention that as part of the equation. As a reason for income difference.
    Also this could be a factor in job discrimination. Maybe employers don’t want to take a risk with a gay employee because he statistically has a higher chance of suicide, substance abuse, ect.

    I know that this is a sensitive issue in the gay community. This issue is not talked about much.

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  7. Zippy says:

    Wow, this has degenerated into an entirely un-economic discussion. I’d like to return the to the main premise of this story for a moment.

    Dear Stephen and Steve,
    I love your books, radio show, blog, podcasts, etc. I listen with great interest to your podcasts while I’m at the gym, on a walk, or on the road. I’ve become increasingly concerned with the lack of presence of feminist economics or economic/social issues from a Global South perspective. This podcast tipped the scales of my concern. One of the researchers (can’t recall who, but it was a female) stated that one reason for the higher levels of education among gay men is that they may choose to compensate for future discrimination in the workplace by achieving higher degrees. (this was the only reason presented in the podcast for this phenomenon). This may hold some truth, but it seems like quite an assumptive statement. What’s worse, it leaps right over top of a very well studied and simple explanation.

    We know, from years of intensive study, that women struggle to achieve higher levels of education and enter into professional fields like law, academia and medicine because of the ticking time bomb of their biological clocks. Women, straight or lesbian, are all under the tick tock of the maternal clock. Gay men, by definition, are exempt from this constraint. So, to say that gay men might seek more schooling for fear of discrimination is far more complicated an explanation than necessary. Gay men don’t have to worry about getting out of school (especially high earning graduate programmes like law, medicine, etc) in time to get a good job (one that will pay off hefty loans), work their way up to partner/resident/tenured professor before turning the magic 35 (point of ‘advanced maternal age’). They also don’t have the same worries women (again, straight or lesbian) have about going through pregnancies and childbirth while working or going to school. Finally, they don’t have to worry about any “surprises” in the form of a baby (that may throw some women off their education or career track).

    Certainly gay men face many social, political and economic barriers. I’m glad that the Freakonomics team was able to break down some of those inaccurate impressions about gay men being much wealthier than everyone else. Still, I wonder if the ‘hidden side of everything’ is really not so hidden in this case.


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  8. Carmen says:

    How can I download this??

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